Copa America draw yields intrigue
© AFP

There were two pieces of good news for the host nation when the draw for the Copa America Argentina 2011 was made at the Teatro Argentino in La Plata on Thursday. As well as landing in perhaps the least daunting of the three groups, La Albiceleste have also been given the opportunity to exact revenge on three teams who have inflicted painful defeats on them in recent times: Bolivia, Colombia and Japan.

“It’s been a while since Argentina has won a major trophy and that makes this a crucial tournament for us,” said La Albicelete’s new coach Sergio Batista after taking stock of a potentially fascinating Group A. “Japan had a good World Cup and I know our opponents won’t make it easy for us. We’ll be fine though. There’ll be pressure on us because we’re at home but we’re ready to handle all that.”

Argentina begin their attempt to win their first official title in 17 years when they take on Bolivia in the tournament opener in La Plata on 1 July, a golden opportunity for them to avenge the 6-1 thrashing they suffered in La Paz in April 2009.

It is a rematch that Bolivia’s Argentinian coach Gustavo Quinteros is relishing: “It’s an intriguing section, though I think Group C is the toughest of the lot. All the same, it doesn’t matter what people say in the build-up because anything can happen out on the pitch. On a personal level, I’m really looking forward to playing Argentina in the opening game.”

Five days later the hosts take on Colombia in Santa Fe in their second match, an encounter that is sure to stir recollections of Los Cafeteros’ stunning 5-0 win in a USA 1994 qualifying match in Buenos Aires in September 1993, Argentina’s last reverse in the capital.

Completing the section are Japan, one of two guest sides in the competition along with Mexico. The Japanese have more recent memories of denting Argentinian pride, having beaten them for the first time in a friendly last month, a defeat that will give Lionel Messi and Co yet more motivation when the action begins next July.

Brazil eye three in a row
Champions at Peru 2004 and Venezuela 2007, Brazil are the team to beat in Group B. That said, with Gerardo Martino’s Paraguay providing the opposition along with Ecuador and Venezuela, Mano Menezes’ side will need to apply themselves if they are to progress.

Welcoming the challenge, the Brazilian is anxious for battle to commence. “It’s the first chance to see the region’s teams all in action since the World Cup,” he said. “These days there’s not much difference between any of the sides.”

Paraguay had a great World Cup and showed that their performance in the qualifiers was no flash in the pan,” he continued. “Venezuela have come on a lot, and although Ecuador have had their ups and downs, they have some very experienced campaigners, some of whom have won the Copa Libertadores.”

After making a big impression in South Africa, the Paraguayans will also have the incentive of atoning for a poor display at Venezuela 2007, when they crashed out following a 6-0 loss to Mexico

Tall order for Peru
Only a few weeks ago Peru’s recently appointed Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarian told FIFA.com how anxious he was to avoid his fellow countrymen in the draw. As fate would have it though, La Celeste will provide the opposition in Markarian’s first official game in charge in Group C.

“These things only happen in football,” said the smiling Uruguayan, whose charges have been pitched into a tough section that also features two other teams who qualified for South Africa 2010: Mexico and Chile.

His compatriot Oscar Tabarez will have a fair idea what to expect when Los Charrúas come up against the Mexicans, whom they beat 1-0 en route to a semi-final place in South Africa. El Maestro will also get a close-up look at the Chileans in a friendly next week. And even though La Roja have yet to find a replacement for Marcelo Bielsa, they are sure to provide stiff opposition for the Uruguayans next July.

Even so, Tabarez is bullish about his side’s prospects. “Don’t forget that when they made the draw for the World Cup they said we were in the Group of Death,” he commented, after following the draw from his home in Montevideo. “We respect everyone but we know how good we are. We’ve got six months of work ahead of us.”

The draw

Group A: Argentina, Colombia, Japan, Bolivia
Group B: Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela
Group C: Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Peru

The winners of the 2011 Copa America qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013.